The Bangkok Post | 9 February 2016
Forget about joining TPP
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty has claimed its first political victim. On the day and in the country where it was signed, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was forced to skip his nation’s main founding day ceremony. Indigenous Maori people angry about the so-called "free trade" treaty asked Mr Key to refrain from bragging about the TPP at Waitangi Day ceremonies.
These embarrassing exchanges took place last week with ministers from the other 11 TPP countries on hand to watch. One hopes that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his cabinet ministers were also watching, from Thailand.
Mr Key’s belligerent showdown with his country’s original inhabitants was embarrassing for him and for New Zealand. But it is just the sort of hostility that Gen Prayut and the government must be prepared to meet if they go ahead, as expected, to sign this horrendous TPP contract.
Officially, the government is debating whether to join the TPP. But more precisely, it seems the decision has already been made, and the government is discussing the fine points of just how and just when. We can be fairly certain of this because of the honesty of Suvit Maesincee. The deputy commerce minister minced no words last week. "Thailand needs to join the TPP," was the way he put it.
There are a few reasons to sign on with the TPP. There are plenty more good reasons to avoid it. Despite wooing from Japan, the government’s strongest reason so far to consider membership is, admittedly roughly stated, "because everyone else is doing it". Of course, not everyone is. So far, including late joiners, US President Barack Obama has managed to convince 11 countries to sign — a noticeable minority of Asia-Pacific countries. Most of Asean hasn’t joined, and China is not even eligible.
A discussion of why the country should reject the TPP should begin with the pact itself. President Obama has stated so many times that it is a free-trade agreement that the media and officials have agreed to describe it this way. They are wrong. The TPP rolls back plenty of trade tariffs, but its voluminous text and side agreements contain thousands of exceptions, specifics, time limits, protections and more.
While it is clear that "free trade" is an incorrect description, there is legitimate debate over whether "trade" should be used. This is the crux of the matter for Thailand, which in 2012 and again last year turned down US requests to join the treaty talks. The TPP is almost entirely taken up by setting rules on international commerce that are biased towards big business. If he decides to start the process to join the TPP, Gen Prayut, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and the cabinet should understand what the huge and angry groundswell of opposition will involve.
Just last week, Thai civil society complained about the lack of rights and protection for local communities in the new constitution. This is the main complaint about the TPP. It is so biased that signing countries agree to give up their own courts’ authority in disputes. The TPP actually establishes new legal guidelines that put the treaty’s rules above national laws.
Prime Minister Key’s embarrassing face-off with the Maori people is a clear warning sign. The TPP includes few advantages for Thai commerce.
Contrary to the information being fed to the media, it would not improve the prospects of Thai exports. The TPP is a treaty best alone for the future.